Why continuing media coverage of climate change is essential
2022 is another hugely important year for tackling the climate emergency, with COP27 taking place in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheikh in November. Kai Tabacek attended COP26 and believes that it marked a sea change in media reporting of climate change. But, he argues, we need to ensure that the voices of those worst affected by climate change continue to be heard.
The UK hosting COP26 was always going to be a huge opportunity. Not only was it the largest international summit the UK has ever hosted, but the first true test of the Paris Agreement: would governments live up to their promise to ratchet up emissions cuts? Would it be enough to keep global warming below the 1.5°C doomsday level? As the inevitable news arrived in early 2020 that COP26 was to be postponed by a year, it sometimes felt as though COP26 could never live up to the hype.
Oxfam’s aim was to highlight how climate change is making global poverty worse
Not only to ensure the voices of people already facing the emergency are heard, but to back the policies we know will make a difference: faster and deeper emissions cuts, huge increases in financial support for adaptation and compensation for the losses and damage that have already happened. Our smaller-than-usual delegation brought together colleagues from nine countries and included Margaret Masudio, a small-scale farmer from Uganda. We began and ended the summit with stunts in Glasgow’s beautiful Royal Exchange Square – using our ‘Big Head’ caricatures of world leaders to highlight their lack of action. Among the many excellent reports published around COP26, Oxfam revealed the huge inequality between the emissions of the world’s wealthiest and poorest citizens, and how this is putting 2030 targets at risk.
Despite being hailed as the world’s “last best chance” to avert climate catastrophe, by the time world leaders touched down in Scotland expectations were already dismally low. It was clear that the carbon reduction pledges (so-called NDCs) were not enough, and that the long-held goal for rich countries to provide $100 billion in climate finance per year was still out of reach. By the end of COP26, and despite the Government hailing the ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’ a success and a flurry of announcements on coal, petrol cars and deforestation, it was clear the summit did not deliver on the most fundamental issues.
There were some glimmers of hope
Setting a specific target for adaptation finance was huge. For years, wealthy governments have been far more willing to fund poorer countries to reduce their meagre emissions instead of helping them take action to adapt to stronger storms, rising seas, scarcer water and less fertile land. Seeing the Scottish Government (after intensive lobbying by Oxfam Scotland) pledge money for Loss and Damage to alleviate the impacts of climate change on some of the world’s most vulnerable communities – the first government to do so – was historic. The commitment by governments to come back with stronger carbon reductions next year – and not in five years – was at least an admission that current targets are completely inadequate. It was also encouraging to see fossil fuels mentioned in the final text, although scarcely believable that this didn’t happen sooner.
A sea change in media reporting of climate change
Putting aside the concrete outcomes, what did COP26 mean for people like us in the business of communicating climate change? Personally, I feel there’s been a sea change in the UK. It wasn’t so long ago that climate change was part of the ‘science correspondent’ beat (often rolled in with health). Today you would struggle to find a national outlet that doesn’t have a climate or environment correspondent, and many outlets (Sky News, the Mirror, the Sun, Independent, Daily Express) have launched dedicated shows or sections of their websites.
COP26 made wall-to-wall headline news – not just at the end but for two weeks. But as well as the usual coverage you would expect (the previews, protests, outrage at leaders flying in and the length of Biden’s motorcade, the diplomatic spats and the race for the finish) it was heartening to see broadcasters reporting what is at stake: David Shukman’s excellent report on the effects of climate change on one Bangladeshi woman over a decade, Lindsey Hilsum on how climate change is fuelling conflict and extremism in Niger and Alex Crawford on the world’s first climate-induced famine in Madagascar.
Climate change is no longer a niche subject for the media
But perhaps most encouraging of all was seeing informed mainstream coverage of subjects that have hitherto been restricted to the pages of the Guardian, Reuters Foundation and Carbon Brief. Articles over the final weekend emphasised the need to “keep 1.5 alive”. The last-minute wrangles over language on coal and fossil fuels cast unwanted attention on the blockers and the fossil fuel lobbies that have been so successful at preventing this in the past. The greater scrutiny of climate finance – and the leadership shown by Scotland on Loss and Damage – may mean that wealthy governments can no longer make vague and misleading pledges without facing scrutiny.
All of this is encouraging, but the real test is yet to come. Have the past two years been an aberration? Will news outlets quietly drop their climate correspondents, recognising the PR opportunity is over? There is plenty to report in year ahead: A looming climate crisis in the Horn of Africa, three landmark reports from the IPCC, updated NDCs and of course the ‘African COP’. All of us have our work cut out to ensure reporting on climate issues is sustained – not only to hold governments and businesses to account for the pledges they have made, but also to report on the real-world impacts. As our colleagues and delegates from far-flung countries head home, we also have the challenge of ensuring they are not forgotten – that journalists continue to report on their experiences and listen to them – not only as ‘colour’ but as experts and analysts.
Kai Tabacek is a Senior Press Officer with Oxfam